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Chicago judge says caps on damages is unconstitutional

By Ann Knef | Nov 13, 2007



CHICAGO -- Cook County Circuit Judge Diane Joan Larsen ruled that a law enacted in 2005 by the Illinois legislature violates victims' rights by capping damages.

Larsen made the ruling in a lawsuit that alleged a botched delivery left an infant brain damaged.

Medical liability reform advocates won an against-all-odds legislative victory when Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed the caps bill into law on Aug. 25, 2005.

The bill caps non-economic damages for physicians at $500,000 and hospitals at $1 million in medical malpractice cases.

Larsen ruled that the law violates the state Constitution's "separation of powers" clause.

She wrote that lawmakers interfered with the right of juries to determine fair damages.

Reaction to Larsen's ruling was swift and strong.

One of the most outspoken supporters of the legislation, Ed Murnane, president of the Illinois Civil Justice League, said Larsen's decision "strikes down the will of the Illinois people and the efforts of the duly elected and bi-partisan state legislature."

"We are confident that the efforts to appeal this decision to the Illinois Supreme Court will be successful, and these valuable and necessary reforms will ultimately be upheld," Murnane said in a statement.

"This law was thoroughly debated and considered by the Illinois General Assembly prior to its passage. It follows many years of crisis in Illinois, during which access to healthcare for Illinois citizens has been threatened."

But Swansea attorney Thomas Q. Keefe, who has filed numerous medical malpractice cases in local courts against area physicians and hospitals, said Judge Larsen did nothing more than follow the law.

"Political hysteria" led to the law's passage, he said.

On a "personal level," Keefe said that it was a "wonderful day" for victims of medical negligence.

"Caps are fundamentally unfair," he said.

He also noted that since the caps bill was enacted malpractice insurance rates have dropped, but not because of the law.

"There has not been one single (new) case affected," he said.

The underlying case in Larsen's order was filed before the law was passed.

"This has been an insurance crisis, not a medical malpractice crisis," he said.

The Illinois State Medical Society (ISMS) and ISMIE Mutual Insurance Company expressed disappointment in Larsen's ruling.

"We are disappointed in the decision, which strikes down the very careful and deliberate effort of the state legislature to bring vital reforms to Illinois," said Theodore B. Olson, former U.S. Solicitor General and constitutional scholar who heads the ISMS/ISMIE team defending the law.

"In 2005, Illinois lawmakers faced health care shortages throughout Illinois due to an exodus of medical professionals triggered by out-of-control medical malpractice litigation," Olson said. "It's a well-documented fact that reforms like these are working in other states. They attract more doctors and make health care more widely available."

Bruce M. Kohen, president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association said the ruling was "an important victory for the rule of law and constitutional government over the rule of special interests."

"From the beginning of the debate about the law imposing caps on damages, the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association (ITLA) has consistently said that this flawed law is unconstitutional," Kohen said. "Judge Larsen's ruling marks the third time over a span of 31 years that Illinois courts have struck down limits on damages in medical malpractice cases."

Larsen's ruling will be argued before the Illinois Supreme Court, likely next summer.

Illinois Hospital Association President Ken Robbins expressed his disappointment in a statement:

"We are confident that the Supreme Court will uphold the medical liability reform law as enacted by the General Assembly and signed by the Governor and determine that they acted legitimately in the best interests of the public health and the citizens of Illinois," Robbins said.

"The law is critically needed to preserve and enhance access to health care for Illinoisans and remains the most appropriate, meaningful and comprehensive solution to address the medical liability crisis," he said.

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Organizations in this Story

Illinois Hospital AssociationIllinois Supreme CourtIllinois General AssemblyIllinois Trial Lawyers Association